Were the Canela the Human Analog to the Bonobo?

From de Waal (2006) Bonobo Sex & Society, Sci Am 16:14-21

In a recent set of lectures by primatologist Frans de Waal at the University of Alabama, two questions were asked by students that have got me thinking about bonobos & the Canela.  The first was something like, what would happen if chimps & bonobos were put together?  For those unfamiliar with the differences, bonobos (Pan paniscus) & chimps (Pan troglodytes) are different species in the same genus.  They share many similarities, & bonobos were until a few decades ago referred to as “pygmy chimpanzees,” because of their more gracile stature.  They are genetically distinct & reproductively isolated by the 3-mile wide Congo River that separates them.  They are both equally related to humans, as the Homo & Pan lineage diverged about 8 million years ago, with the chimp/bonobo divergence coming about 5 million years later.  However, what separates the bonobo & chimp in popular consciousness is the bonobo image as the “make-love-not-war” ape & chimps as the genocidal, war-like, or at least more aggressive variety.

The answer from de Waal was that the chimps would attack & kill the bonobos, as they are typically larger & stronger than bonobos.

(Source: Sex and Physics blog)

While chimp females are also bigger than bonobo females, chimp males band together & would never let females do the same.  They would ruthlessly break up any such efforts.  Bonobo males don’t band together; they’re not that coordinated.  So bonobo females are in charge.  And a high status bonobo male is only big cheese until his mama dies, because bonobos are mama’s boys.  But don’t feel sorry for the bonobo male, says de Waal.  His life is not so bad.  He hangs outs, screws, eats, hangs out, gets a hand job, screws, hangs out.  Rough life, even at the bottom.  Chimp lives are much more high stress.

 The second question another student asked that got me thinking was, didn’t all the aggressive chimps in an African troop die off & leave behind a group of calm males that changed the tone of the troop?  That, pointed out de Waal, was actually a group of baboons studied by Robert Sapolsky.  Yes, indeed, the aggressive males would scavenge in the garbage dump of a tourist resort dump & picked up a nice virulent dose of tuberculosis.  But only virulent among the aggressive males who were eating the tainted meat (as I recall from reading A Primate’s Memoir).  Sapolsky killed & destroyed all the members who showed any signs of disease to try to contain the epidemic, fearing it would wipe out all the savanna baboons in the area, but it only took out the aggressive males & left a calm troop behind.  A decade later, the pacific culture persisted, though the original unaggressive males no longer remained.  These males displayed high rates of grooming, relaxed dominance hierarchy, low physiological stress among low-ranking males, transmission of culture, and female influence on transfer males to maintain this culture (Sapolsky & Share 2004).
Putting these two questions together, a third occurs to me:  What if the same happened to chimps?  Is the aggressive chimp & lascivious bonobo a result of similar cultural evolution?  Could we raise an aggressive bonobo or a hippy free-love chimp?  The extent to which they can be trained in captivity suggests we can, devastatingly scary & sad face-eating & hand-sheering incidents aside.  Furthermore, the domestication experiments with Arctic Gray Foxes in Siberia (see Dogs Decoded streaming on Netflix) suggest that such divergence may only take a few generations, not necessarily a million years.  Didn’t big game hunters & zoo keepers routinely lump bonobos & chimps together once upon a time, as they did Bornean & Sumatran orangutans?  Is this urban legend (like the humanzee)?  If not, what happened to them (someone, please do tell–best I can find is a comment referencing hybrids in a Belgian circus)?
How does this bring us to the Canela?  Who are the Canela?  Well, if we froze time (i.e., used the ethnographic present) around 60-100 years ago, they were possibly the human analog to our stereotype or gross characterization of the bonobo.  Funny, because we call them the analog to our empathic, compassionate , & permissively sexual selves (& chimps analogous to our hostile war-like selves); but really, we’re a rather prudish lot compared to the bonobos.  At our swinger-est, most orgiastic, we are a far cry from the bonobo.  Or maybe it’s just me.  I am a bit of a prude.  But, to my mind, we are too big a society with too much privacy to have the kind of sex the bonobos have.  In fact, the key seems to be privacy.  We have too much of it.  Privacy ruins everything.  As soon as we have a secret, it becomes dark, envy sets in, rumors spread.  If you have nothing to hide, then why keep a secret?  If you have something to hide, it must be something that will harm me, & therefore you are evil, you are selfish.  The ethos of the Canela in the ethnographic present written about by anthropologist William Crocker was generosity.  Sharing one’s possessions was held in the highest esteem & sharing one’s body was analogous.  The Canela are an Amazonian people, traditionally foragers, who utilized sex as a bonding mechanism.  Sound familiar?

Canela girl (from William H. Crocker Collection on Smithsonian website)

The core of the system involved extramarital & sequential sex, which provided plenty of sexual access to everyone.  Young girls would be considered married to the first young unattached male she gave her virginity to.  An unattached male is one who is not yet a father, unless he is just a “contributing” father.  A contributing father is one of the many husbands whose semen is contributed to the fetus thru sex after pregnancy.  The “social” father is the one in the picture when the child is born & who everyone then associates as the main provider for that female & child, though contributing fathers also help out.  After her marriage, the girl hangs with her husband for a few months & has a lot of sex with him but then begins to have trysts with others guys, who are then considered her other husbands.  Presently, she is ready for attachment to a men’s society, to which she provides sequential sex during ceremonies.  In these ceremonies, she may have sex with dozens of males.  With this, she is considered mature & her in-laws present her with a maturity belt, following which is her “free” period, in which she has as many extramarital affairs as she can manage with impunity from her in-laws, until her first child is born.  Once a child is born, she hunkers down with social primary father of that child & only has sex with other men during ceremonies & via the occasional surreptitious tryst.

Canela girl etting marriage belt from in-laws (Crocker & Crocker 1994)

Why do females put up with this?  According to Crocker, it maintains the balance in the society.  Not all males are good at attracting extramarital affairs & only get it thru the ceremonies.  Therefore, providing ceremonial sex is considered beneficial to the morale of the tribe & brings great social esteem.  And it is the expected way to be accepted as a mature wife & mother.  And, well, a lot of them like it.  They like to be able to have extramarital affairs (see Buss & Meston’s Why Women Have Sex for the numerous non-proximal reasons women have sex that have nothing to do with babies or maximizing fitness–which frequently puts a cramp in the style of their respondants as much as it does that of the Canela girls).  A virgin girl is considered to be like a virgin forest–relatively useless.  This was once analogous to boys without pierced ears.  The ear was considered the way knowledge gets in the head.  To better facilitate this, a boy needed big, open ears.  Thus, they formerly observed a piercing rite of passage in which the boys’ ears were pierced & stretched to fit large plugs to make the boys compliant.  And girls found guys with big ear plugs extra knowledgable about–ahem–things (the same was true of the Iban, by the way, whose tattoos were once literally a resume of the sexual experiences they’d had & acts they were capable of, but we’ll come back to that in a future post).

Canela boy getting pierced to open ears for knowledge & social compliance

What about the Canela guys sexual training?  At adolescence, they give their virginity to a post-menopausal women, who has been their “joking wife since they were little (joking friends typically mock each other’s genitals & sexual abilities whenever they encounter each other).  Afterward, they spend several years refraining from sex to devote their energies to learning other important things, like hunting, etc.  Then they have a relatively free period of sexual bounty, provided they have the charisma to obtain it.  Hence sequential ceremonial sex for those that don’t.  And, whereas girls were not generally forced to engage in sequential sex (they just would be socially ostracized if they didn’t), boys would be followed & monitored to ensure they went thru the sexual rites.  This sounds rather dark, but the monograph does a much better job of putting it in context than have I, starting as I have with the juicy sequential sex stuff & thoroughly exoticizing them, which actually comes at the end of the book.  Though in fairness, the author’s adolescent Canela “nieces” ask him how many women he has “seen” with his “big banana” since the last time they saw him, so the Canela’s sexual behavior is pretty thoroughly exoticized without my help.

Canela woman lampooning sex by wearing fake male genitals (Crocker 1994)

The portrait Crocker paints is one of a fun-loving, joking people.  They have elaborate friendship systems, as previously alluded to, where ribald humor holds center stage.  Depending on the rules of the friendship, there is no funnier joke than for a woman to grab at the penis or genitals of her friend or for the male to try to suck the breast or pull off the wraparound skirt of his friend.  It relieves some of the tensions between the sexes.  She squeals in delight or he appears abashed to the amusement of their families.  And this is key, as this is not done in private, but always in public, lest any joke go “too far.”  This takes center stage to the fascination of the children, who watch & absorb the tacit message that sex & joking is something that is fun & funny.

So are the Canela analogs to bonobos?  Well, they’re probably a lot different now.  The ear-piercing ritual started disappearing in the 1950s.  According to Crocker, the sexual openness of the Canela has slowly eroded over the past century, probably as direct result of the anthropological gaze.  He reports that, in the ’30s, the anthropologist Curt Nimuendaju intensively studied Canela sexuality, probably asking all manner of questions about why they did what they did, while he himself remained chaste & did none of these things.  Though Crocker considers his influence to have been generally positive, Nimuendaju’s implicit message was that he did not approve, leading them to conceal their practices from outsiders more than before.  If I were to interpret this withdraw, I might think he Canela got the message that they were interesting because they were different & did things we don’t do even though we can, thus making them self-conscious.  This is a bit Foucauldian, yes?  The magnitude of the lenses of science we focus on things like sexuality & sanity are greater when we are trying to understand what we consider aberrant than they are when we look to the so-called normal.  Thus, by drawing negative attention to it, we define it as abnormal with our very gaze.  In seeking to better understand, we ask for more clarity & draw attention to details that were scarcely noticed, pulling at the loose threads of a culture in the process, reifying “aberration” & destroying the “flow” of psyche & sexuality…There’s something to that.
I also want to be careful about animalizing the Canela.  Just as we want to be careful anthropomorphizing the bonobo.  There’s certainly ecological relativity to sexual behaviors.  The Canela, interestingly, did not condone masturbation.  So, if you can’t masturbate & you’re not corset-wearing Victorians, an option is to have lots of intercourse (or at least it seems the logical alternative on the face of things–this feels a bit Freudian-hydraulic, but Crocker makes this insinuation so I will put it out there).  Bonobos, uh, do plenty of masturbating.  Also, the Canela did not condone homosexuality.  Although Crocker reports the presence of homosexual males, they are not homosexual in desire, as is the fixation of Euro-American sexual identity, but in gender roles.  They appear, more accurately, asexual in terms of desire.  The bonobos exhibit lots of sociosexual behavior, lots of different ways, with all the boys & the girls.  And the infants too.  Canela children may hear & see a lot of sex behavior & talk, but they do not generally engage in it until adolescence.  Finally, the Canela are humans, so they are changing.  As mentioned, they are & are not the people of Crocker’s book really, as the bulk of what seems so striking occurred early in his fieldwork, in the 1960s and 1970s.  They are susceptible to the influence of missionaries & traders & anthropologists & money & alcohol & probably iPhones now, just like the rest of us.
So what if we took a chimp & raised it as a bonobo?  What if we took your baby & raised it as a Canela?  I think de Waal’s point is clear, that other animals are more cultural than we care to admit.  The bonobos are not simply analogs of our sexuality any more than the chimps are models of our aggression.  They are both species capable of cultural development of empathy but perhaps just less flexibility.  They cannot change as quick as we can & as the baboons.  But all the same capacities lay in both, just a few generations removed.  And that all means that we can buy into this empathic revolution that people like Frans de Waal posit in his new book The Age of Empathy & economist Jeremy Rifkin outlines in The Empathetic Civilization.  Our problem is not that we need multiple generations for selection to work, we need time to infiltrate the private lives of our secret selves.  We need full disclosure.  We need no secrets.  We need to have our penises laughed at.  It’s hard because we are such a big society, but right here we have our blogs & other virtual forums where we can have our wraparound skirts yanked off & penises grabbed (in fun now, don’t let’s hurt anyone).  So what if Facebook exposes you to the world whenever they update their privacy whatchamacallits?!  What are you hiding back there anyway?  Show the world that you were front & center for a Spencer Tunick photograph, that you are featured on the Great Wall of Vagina!
Go ahead…you first.
Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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4 Responses to Were the Canela the Human Analog to the Bonobo?

  1. Pingback: Diversity is Our Business–& Going to Museums in the Nude | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  2. Christopher Lynn Christopher Lynn says:

    Thanks, John. Robert Sapolsky is the guy who measures cortisol in baboons.
    I think you’re right about the overweening anthropological focus on the exotic & the need to focus on mainstream populations. On the other hand, I think Renato Rosaldo right said that we can’t see mainstream until its mores are violated. We only see culture as integrated if it has borders that distinguish it from something else. I had my students watching a film on female circumcision the other day & sat thinking about how the men’s societies depicted in the film really do mirror how chimp males band together to prevent female collaboration. HOWEVER, it is pointed out that when the males are encouraged to express their opinions in a town meeting, we are able to learn what they are thinking, which is often more ignorance stuff like “if a woman is uncircumcised & the clitoris touches the baby during childbirth, the baby will die” than “we have to stick together, guys, or these women will get out of line.” It’s easier to address a misconception & build on knowledge, I think, than to implement some grand scheme to socialize a people. It’s why I like the internet so much & all this blathering on blogs. People critique the misinformation out there, & it’s certainly an issue when you have people being lazy & getting information from unreliable sources. But they would do that anyway. I do. I get all kinds of interesting misinformation from anonymous friends & then turn around & say it to someone else without verifying it. At least with the internet, it’s not private. It’s out there & potentially correctable. You are right about the Victorian thing. And it makes me think about how often flirty women are accused of being promiscuous (or sluts or whatever), which I always interpret as jealousy. And it’s not just that the accuser wants such women in the carnal way, but maybe just wishes s/he was similarly unfettered, or would like to be the object of the flirting. Many people have friends they can make ribald jokes with, but it’s become unanchored in our culture so there is no temperate monitoring system. In other words, we don’t, say, know to only make sex jokes with our friends in front of other friends or family so they can tell us when the jokes are going too far. In fact, we generally hide such relationships so our other friends & families so we don’t get accused of being sexist or crude or get in trouble for sexual harrassment. We (OK, I) repress it like good little Victorians. But I also think it goes a bit against the natural tendencies of some of us to suggest we should be less private, more open. I think it’s simply an ecological factor. Given the size of our societies, those of us who prefer to be private CAN be private. It makes me think of when I was teaching Cultural Anthro at SUNY New Paltz & I took my students to visit the Bruederhof commune in Rifton, which is an Anabaptist sect that dispenses with private property & requires everyone to participate in the community. They had their young people act as the hosts to my students, & one young guy was frank & said that it’s a lot of work to live in a religious commune. He said that for him, the hardest part was that he didn’t really like being around people that much & that, though he valued the principle of communal living & had been brought up in that community, it was still difficult to be a decent or pleasant human being all the time & never be able to just go & hide himself away.

  3. Avatar John says:

    last sentence should just read “issues that we take for granted” I think Americans still have a Victorian complex about sex, especially the baby-boomers.

  4. Avatar John says:

    This is very insightful. I especially like the implications that greater gender equality and less patriarchal control over women’s sexuality fosters harmonious social relations and that animals are “more cultural than we are willing to admit”. Who’s the guy that does cortisol tests on baboons in the wild? I think he’s at Berkeley possibly? Anyway, I’m still a bit too much of a prude for a Tunick exhibition and generally like monogamy as a personal choice, but I think the ways sexuality, privacy, and power intersect are interesting and is a field ripe for expansion and exploration. Anthropology seems to be always interested in the exotic manifestations of sexuality, but I think it would help to pay more attention to more main-stream populations as well in an effort to explore issues that often seem too obvious to take for granted.

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